To infinity and beyond... The most amazing night sky photography
28th August 2012
We've shared some stunning panoramic photography before, but this puts the rest to shame... After all, it's 100,000 light years from one side to the other.
Open your eyes to the hidden night... What do you see? That was the anthropic question of a year-long photographic project Dubbed the Photopic Sky Survey. It turns out that the answer is tens of millions of stars, the glowing factories of newborn ones, and a rich tapestry of dust all floating on a stage of unimaginable proportions.
The Photopic Sky Survey is a 5,000 megapixel photograph of the entire night sky stitched together from 37,440 exposures.
Nick Risinger spent a year, traveling 60,000 miles to create the photographs that would become the Sky Survey.
"Capturing the full sphere of the night sky brought with it certain limitations," says Risinger on his website. "What might be seen in the northern hemisphere isn't always visible from the south and, likewise with the seasons, what may be overhead in the summer is below the horizon in the winter." Complicated further by weather and moon cycles, this made for some narrow windows of opportunity which he chased through the remote areas of Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, California and Oregon.
"As light pollution continues to spread in America, these western states contain some of the last havens of true darkness, a shade few of us are any longer familiar with in which the Milky Way alone can cast a soft shadow," continued Risinger. "This darkness was crucial because even the slightest amount of light pollution could overpower faint starlight and haze the exposures."
As anyone who has tried to capture night scenes with their camera would know, stars present a formidable challenge. They don't stay still and their light is very weak, requiring long exposures and a tripod mount that rotates in sync with Earth's spin. Risinger also wanted to capture the most amount of detail, so he decided each piece of the puzzle would be just 12 degrees wide - "about the width of a palm at arm's length captured by not just one, but six air-cooled cameras each fitted with their own lenses and filters."
Risinger divided the sky into 624 uniformly spaced areas. Each frame received a total of 60 exposures: 4 short, 4 medium, and 4 long shots for each camera which would help to reduce the amount of noise, overhead satellite trails and other unwanted artifacts.
And so it was with this blueprint that he worked his way through the sky, frame by frame, night after night.
"The click-clack of the shutters opening and closing became a staccato soundtrack for the many nights spent under the stars," said Risinger. "Occasionally, the routine would be pierced by a bright meteor or the cry of a jackal, each compelling a feeling of eerie beauty that seemed to hang in the air. It was an experience that will stay with me a lifetime."
The SkySurvey App
Download the Sky Survey App to find the galaxies above you, zoom in and out of the Milky Way and discover the wonders and mysteries of space from your own back garden... or anywhere else for that matter.
The Photopic Sky Survey was created over a year ago. Last night it featured on BBC's Horizon show How Big is the Universe? (for those in the UK check out 1min 40sec into the show) and a new interactive iPad App has been launched that allows you to see the night sky above you (whenever and wherever you are) in the most amazing detail.
For those interested in the specifics and tools used to make the survey...
Cameras - Finger Lakes ML-8300 monochrome
Lenses - Zeiss Sonnar 85mm f2.8
Filters - Astronomik LRGB, Astrodon Ha
Mount - Takahashi EM-11 Temma 2 w/ custom armature
Generator - Yamaha EF1000iS for USA trips
Laptop - Intel Core i7-820QM running Linux Fedora, 8GB RAM w/ 4TB external storage
MaximDL - mount control, image capture, and creation of calibration frames (dark, bias, flat)
IRAF - many scripted tasks such as up-scaling, registration, saturated pixel replacements with scaled exposures, stacking, and median background modeling
SExtractor - building each frames list of objects
SCAMP - cross referencing to create position and distortion headers
Swarp - reprojection and stitching of frames
PixInsight - generate final LRGBHa color composite, midtones transfer function, noise reduction
GIMP - final assembly, curve & saturation tweaks